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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

James Alan McPherson
(b. 1943)

In his non-fiction piece “On Becoming an American Writer” (The Atlantic, December 1978), James Alan McPherson provides rich clues about his identity as a black American citizen who is a writer. He grew up “in a lower-class black community in Savannah, Georgia, attended segregated public schools,” and because of the National Defense Student Loan Program, was able to enroll at Morris Brown College where he received his B.A. in 1965. Summers, McPherson worked as a dining car waiter on the Great Northern Railroad. “Before I was nineteen I was encouraged to move from a segregated Negro college in the South and through that very beautiful part of the country that lies between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest. That year—1962—the World’s Fair was in Seattle, and it was a magnificently diverse panorama for a young man to see. Almost every nation on earth was represented in some way, and at the center of the fair was the Space Needle. The theme of the United States exhibit, as I recall, was drawn from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: ‘Conquering, holding, daring, venturing as we go the unknown ways.’”

After college McPherson went to Harvard Law School, where he received his law degree in 1968. “In a class taught by Paul Freund,” he notes, “I began to play with the idea that the Fourteenth Amendment was not just a legislative instrument devised to give former slaves legal equality with other Americans.” Years later he went “to the Library of Congress and read the brief of the lawyer-novelist Albion W. Tourgeé in the famous case Plessy v. Ferguson.” Tourgeé’s brief had strong imaginative as well as legal implications for McPherson. “What he (Tourgeé) was proposing in 1896, I think, was that each United States citizen would attempt to approximate the ideals of the nation, be on at least conversant terms with all its diversity, carry the mainstream of the culture inside himself. As an American, by trying to wear these clothes he would be a synthesis of high and low, black and white, city and country, provincial and universal. If he could live with these contradictions, he would be simply a representative American.”

In both Hue and Cry and Elbow Room McPherson’s stories explore what he calls the “minefield of delicious ironies” implicit in Tourgeé’s commentary on the Fourteenth Amendment. Why, for example, McPherson asks, thinking of his story, “Why I like Country Music,” “should black Americans raised in southern culture not find that some of their responses are geared to country music?” And likewise, “how else except in terms of cultural diversity, am I to account for the white friend in Boston who taught me much of what I know about black American music? Or the white friend in Virginia who, besides developing a homegrown aesthetic he calls “crackertude,” knows more about black American folklore than most black people?”

Influenced by Ralph Ellison, about and with whom he wrote “Indivisible Man” (The Atlantic, December 1970), McPherson believes “that the United States is complex enough to induce that sort of despair that begets heroic hope. I believe that if one can experience its diversity, touch a variety of its people, laugh at its craziness, distill wisdom from its tragedies, and attempt to synthesize all this inside oneself without going crazy, one will have earned the right to call oneself citizen of the United States.” Like Ellison, McPherson is a moral historian. Recognizing the American territory as an ideal always pursued, always there but never reached, he holds his fiction to a high standard by virtue of his identity as a black American writer: “Those of us who are black and who have to defend our humanity should be obliged to continue defending it, on higher and higher levels—not of power, which is a kind of tragic trap, but on higher levels of consciousness.” Like many other contemporary writers, McPherson imbues the written word of fiction with the qualities and values of the oral tradition. In “Solo Song: For Doc” McPherson writes down the story the youngblood waiter hears from the old waiter’s waiter about Doc Craft. The story testifies to the lessons of craft McPherson has learned from black storytellers of earlier generations.

McPherson has taught at the University of California at Santa Cruz (1969–1976); the University of Virginia at Charlottesville (1976–1981); and currently he is Professor of English at the University of Iowa where he received an MFA in 1971. He is also a contributing editor for The Atlantic and winner of a MacArthur Foundation Award in 1981.

John F. Callahan
Lewis and Clark College

In the Heath Anthology
A Solo Song: For Doc (1968)

Other Works
Hue and Cry (1969)
Elbow Room (1977)

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James Alan McPherson, Contributor Profile
A brief biography and photograph.

Thanks for the memory: Pulitzer winner McPherson probes past through his own lens
Lorenzo Thomas's review of Crabcakes for the Houston Chronicle.

Secondary Sources